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Eco Church

St John the Baptist Parish Church Eco Church

Ethical buying: the problem with palm oil

A great source of information which I have discovered is the Ethical Consumer website (www.ethicalconsumer.org). You can put in the name of almost any product or brand and find information on just how ethical the company/product is. The ethical rating is based on six categories: environment, people, animals, politics, product sustainability and company ethos. Of course such a mine of information raises all sorts of issues as things are often not as straightforward as we would like to think.

One product which is really difficult to avoid when buying just about anything is Palm Oil. It is an incredibly versatile oil which is used in around 50% of products consumers purchase and use on a daily basis including cleaning products, shampoos, soaps, cosmetics, candles and toothpaste. Unfortunately the list of alternative names for palm oil is huge but you can find a list of these on the websites referenced below. Alternatively, if in doubt, a quick search on the internet will tell you if a product contains palm oil. 

Most of the palm oil consumed is found in food. It is in everything from cooking oil and margarine to chips, cookies, chocolate, biscuits, breakfast cereals, peanut butter and ice cream. In order to produce palm oil on such a massive scale, it is said that the equivalent of 300 football fields of rainforests is cleared every hour. Palm oil is a major driver of deforestation of the world’s most bio-diverse forests. Palm oil production at an uncontrollable rate is wiping out the habitat of already endangered species such as Orangutan, pygmy elephants and Sumatran rhino. The continued deforestation is also contributing millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Issues of child labour and exploitation of workers are also prevalent. There are companies which are reducing their use of palm oil in products or which aim to only use sustainable, Fairtrade or organic palm oil. But it is a difficult and complex issue which takes a lot of unravelling.

For me the first step was to research particular items which I knew had a bad name for using palm oil, and to find alternatives wherever possible. Next I identified companies which use either no palm oil or only sustainable, Fairtrade or organic palm oil. The certification scheme for palm oil which has been established by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is not perfect but currently it’s the best there is. Of the main supermarkets, Waitrose and Marks and Spencer only use sustainable palm oil in their own products. And Iceland is the only supermarket which has removed all palm oil from their own brand food. There are also a number of great ethical companies which are doing their best to produce items without hurting the environment, people or animals. 

To find a product or a company which scores highly in all six categories listed in the first paragraph of this article can be extremely difficult. But they are out there – you just need to be prepared to do your own research. In some cases however you may either have to compromise or make something similar from basic ingredients or, most radically, go without.

Tracy Perrett

Sources for this article: 

  1. Ethical Consumer (www.ethicalconsumer.org)
  2. Orangutan Foundation International (www.orangutanfoundation.org.au)
  3. Palm Oil Investigations (www.palmoilinvestigations.org)
  4. Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (www.rspo.org)